Reading Words, Hearing Music

Recently I was browsing through Paul McCartney’s book of poetry and lyrics, Blackbird Singing, which I’d bought a few years before but hadn’t fully read. This time I paid closer attention to the verse, and I began to notice that I was reading the poems very differently from the lyrics. And for an obvious reason: the lyrics register in a way that seems less cerebral and more visceral than the lines written as “poetry,” meant to communicate solely as words on a page. I cannot separate the words of, say, “Eleanor Rigby” from the doleful melody and slashing strings that vivify and embellish them on the recording I’ve listened to hundreds of times since childhood. The words are already inside me, attached to musical notes, and refuse my attempts to give them a purely verbal life through the eyes’ silent, inner-voice perusal. The emotions the song brings out are in fact older than my comprehension of the lyrics. As kids we learn songs by repeatedly hearing them and singing them, even if the lyrics are far beyond our understanding. This odd disparity between cognitive and emotional response is sharpest, I think, in songs. I can enjoy poetry whose meaning evades me (some of Stevens or Hart Crane, for instance), but that enjoyment is largely an aesthetic effect of the words, not an emotion created by music that infuses, as it were, the words at some preverbal level.

Songs become part of us by reiteration, working deep into our minds and residing there, dormant, until we hear them again or they are revived by a random association or a deliberate summons. And it is the melodies, the notes, the wordless instruments that create this lasting power. The song that provides McCartney’s book title begins “Blackbird singing in the dead of night/ Take these broken wings and learn to fly.” Perfectly nice phrasing, but here as I write them and when I read them in a printed book, the words don’t, as it were, take flight. Only when I liberate them by allowing the buoyant, folk-like tune and McCartney’s voice to assume their natural place beneath and within the words (by no longer trying to suppress the remembered music) do they assert their full force, aesthetically and emotionally. The words have some of the music of poetry, but mostly they rely on – have their fulfilment in – the music of music.

Another way to look at this might be to compare the use of language in “Blackbird” with a similar use by a non-songwriting poet, not of course to disparage “Blackbird” as a poem (it isn’t one) but to suggest some differences in the way poetry and songs work. Repetition provides a good example: in “Blackbird” the line “You were only waiting for this moment to arise” is immediately repeated. When read on the page, it is merely a repetition, meaning pretty much the same thing the second time. But when sung (at least in McCartney’s own interpretation), the lines are different because the notes are different, as are the singer’s inflections. We aren’t so much attentive to the echoing as to the variation in melody and emphasis, reinforcing the line’s meaning but also changing it. The waiting and the moment are given poignant urgency, and “arise” lifts hopefully.

Words’ own music, however, can also transform a seemingly simple repetition. Putting aside the myriad birds in poetry (including “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”), we might turn to one of the most famous repetitions in verse, “And miles to go before I sleep/ And miles to go before I sleep” at the end of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” These simple yet elusive lines, of course, have inspired countless commentaries and discussions, in scholarly journals as well as in high school English classes. They’ve become almost part of the vernacular. And it is the repetition itself, the echoing of the phrases, that creates much of the oft-noted ambiguity. The words have many possible connotations, and the repetition forces the reader to consider those multiple alternatives. But the deeper resonance of the repeated line comes from its silent presence on the page, so that we create difference in our minds, a difference of sound and sense. No musical notes or singer provide the variation, which comes from the interplay of words compelling our close attention by their insistent sameness. Spoken aloud, the words would acquire whatever emphases or implications the speaker chose to give them, as in a play. Yet the focus would still be on the words. Poetry, written or spoken, relies on the depths of words as well as on their surfaces.


Another thought as I browsed Blackbird Singing: why did McCartney not make songs out of some of these poems? Why not give them a larger life in music? After all, songs reach far more people than poetry does. This question too hinges on the differences between lyrics and poetry. The McCartney poems feel conversational or ruminative, centred on the sound and significance of the words themselves, sometimes mysterious, inviting contemplation. One example, from “Full Moon’s Eve”: “Old loves return/ To kiss the lips/ In case the empty gallery/ Should fill with whispering strangers/ Like a flood.” Music would not necessarily add to the verbal play here, and might subtract by distracting. Also by specifying: notes pull us toward particular emotions and specific meanings, whereas words alone (carefully selected) allow for a variety of thoughts and feelings, affecting us intellectually as well as sensually. As Stephen Sondheim succinctly puts it, “poetry doesn’t need music; lyrics do.” Sondheim has cited the example of Oscar Hammerstein’s “Oh, what a beautiful mornin’/ Oh, what a beautiful day,” words that rely on Richard Rodgers’ ebullient melody for their full emotional effect.

All of which led me to consider, not for the first time, why I usually dislike poetry set to music, especially poetry I know well. So when even a great composer like Britten or Copland joins the words of T.S. Eliot, say, or Emily Dickinson with notes that carry those words along, I often feel that the words – and my response to them – have been hijacked. They’ve been elicited to take on a role, forced into a new identity, like a familiar friend compelled to wear a perhaps attractive but distorting costume. The more intricate the music, the more extreme the poem’s alienating transformation.

In an essay on “Music and Opera,” W.H. Auden asserts that “a verbal art like poetry is reflective; it stops to think. Music is immediate, it goes on to become.” Later in the essay, he elaborates:

Poetry is in its essence an act of reflection, of refusing to be content with the interjections of immediate emotion in order to understand the nature of what is felt. Since music is in essence immediate, it follows that the words of a song cannot be poetry.

As Auden suggests here, the music of poetry involves sense in two senses: the direct pleasure and emotion in words and the less immediate implications (intellectually, spiritually) of those words. The greater the poem, possibly, the more self-sufficient it is, the more its inherent music renders any musical setting superfluous.

But what about great poems that have become great songs? Often, as in William Blake’s “The Lamb” and “Jerusalem” for instance, such works were songs or song-like to begin with – “The Lamb” is one of the Songs of Innocence, and “Jerusalem” has a fluidity, rhythm and rhyme that adapted naturally into a hymn melody. Some of Auden’s own poems, such as the “Anthem for St Cecilia’s Day,” are similarly musical and became fine songs. In such poems, the words seem enriched, even completed, by their settings (even as they are defined in a particular way by those settings).

And of course there are contemporary poets who write songs. Leonard Cohen was prominent among these. In his songs, the sound and sense of words predominate. We can enjoy a song like “Suzanne” even without its melody. Yet that melody, especially in Cohen’s deep sombre voice, half-speaking the lyrics while tracing the tune, enhances the meaning, emotion, and sensual power of the words. In rap and hip-hop also, the primary force is in spoken or chanted words, and the music without them would have much less impact. But that music and the human voice impart an urgency and immediacy that the words would not have on their own.


This contrast between song-words and poetry-words might be further illuminated by considering Paul McCartney’s songwriting alongside that of his fellow-Beatle John Lennon. The Lennon-McCartney collaboration has long been understood to exist in name(s) only; aficionados and critics readily identify songs as Paul’s or John’s. And it is commonly asserted that Paul’s songs are stronger musically while John’s have superior lyrics. But is that true? I think the differences are more complex. Lennon’s lyrics are closer to poetry, especially the surreal or nonsense poetry of Lear or Carroll or of Lennon’s books In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works. Two fine examples are “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I Am the Walrus,” which have seductive music but rely as much on the sounds of words (and their startling juxtapositions) as the sounds of the notes that accompany them. Compare “Strawberry Fields” with its flipside on the original single, “Penny Lane” (a McCartney tune). Both were inspired by places in the Beatles’ native Liverpool, but Lennon’s song unfolds in a dreamlike locale of the mind while McCartney’s sketches an eccentric, idealized but recognizably actual townscape, a remembered place nostalgically reimagined. The difference is created in large part by the interrelation of lyrics and tune in each song. “Let me take you down/ Cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields/ Nothing is real” begins Lennon’s song, which becomes more and more abstract and introspective in lines like “No one I think is in my tree/ I mean it must be high or low.” The melody circles, as it were, in a sort of timeless repetition, almost a droning chant, that intensifies the words’ tug away from the everyday world. Lennon riffs verbally on the title place-name and, presumably, the feelings and associations it evokes – each word creating an effect, sometimes detached from the words around it and therefore making little cumulative sense. This adds to the atemporal, dreamworld feeling (enhanced by George Martin’s innovative production, which slowed down and sped up the original tracks).

“Penny Lane” describes the title street, where “there is a barber showing photographs/ of every head he’s had the pleasure to know.” The words move along like a genial pedestrian strolling. Whimsy and cosy reassurance abound even as the words turn ambiguous, and the music has a clear melodic line. The pleasure in “pleasure,” for instance, comes from the sung notes smoothly conveying the word as it follows from the previous word and leads into the next. In “Strawberry Fields,” the music serves the words; in “Penny Lane” they are mutually reinforcing. But in neither are the lyrics truly poetry.

Sometimes in popular songs this balance tips strongly in the direction of the music, almost as in opera. The words exchange their deeper connotations for a secondary role as verbal vehicles for mellifluous melodic expression. We hear this in a “minimalist” song like McCartney’s “Hello, Goodbye,” which exhilarates musically while repeating the same few binary words with an emphasis on the “positive” ones, so that verbal monotony is lifted by music into joyful affirmation. The Beach Boys’ classic Pet Sounds album epitomizes this immersion, as it were, of words in waves of music; the lyrics frequently give way to pure melody vocalized in non-signifying phrases. And in Stevie Wonder’s superb Songs in the Key of Life, even words that might seem greeting-card banal take on thrilling eloquence through Wonder’s wondrous musicality.


The subliminally powerful effects of music have long been noted by scientific studies. People with cognitive difficulties, for instance, are able to remember songs with much greater clarity than purely verbal information. This would seem to lend empirical support to our sense that words partnering music create a more direct and physical effect than words alone, that words have an essentially cognitive nature even in the most emotive poetry. We process the music of words differently from the music of music, and that difference underlies the particular power of songs. Possibly one reason why McCartney titled his book not Blackbird (like the recorded song) but Blackbird Singing was to emphasize that printed lyrics, those black signifiers on the page, find full life only through a voice. In reading, we naturally sing them.


Paul McCartney quotations are from Blackbird Singing (Norton).

W.H. Auden quotation from The Dyer’s Hand (Vintage).

Robert Frost quotation from The Poetry of Robert Frost (Holt, Rinehart, Winston).

Stephen Sondheim quotation from Finishing the Hat (Knopf).

Frank Meola

About Frank Meola

Frank M. Meola has published work in a variety of forms and places, including New England Review and the New York Times. His recent essay in Michigan Quarterly Review centers on the ambiguities of Hispanic identity in America, based partly on his experience. Three of his stories have been finalists in fiction competitions. He recently completed a novel and is working on a new one. He has an MFA from Columbia University and teaches at NYU. He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his husband and their two cats.

Frank M. Meola has published work in a variety of forms and places, including New England Review and the New York Times. His recent essay in Michigan Quarterly Review centers on the ambiguities of Hispanic identity in America, based partly on his experience. Three of his stories have been finalists in fiction competitions. He recently completed a novel and is working on a new one. He has an MFA from Columbia University and teaches at NYU. He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his husband and their two cats.

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